After dumping the nuclear deal, Trump has no strategy for Iran

U.S. President Donald Trump arrives to announce his decision whether or not to withdraw from the JCPOA Iran nuclear agreement in the Diplomatic Room of the White House in Washington, U.S., May 8, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst - HP1EE581ESESZ

After months of speculation and a flurry of last-minute European diplomacy, Donald Trump has taken perhaps the most consequential decision of his unconventional presidency with the re-imposition of U.S. sanctions on Iran in a deliberately provocative breach of the 2015 nuclear agreement. By torpedoing U.S. adherence to the accord, Trump has all but guaranteed its collapse, a move that opens the door to the unfettered resumption of Iran’s nuclear program and unleashes unpredictable escalatory pressures in an already volatile Middle East.

The premediated American dismantling of an agreement that was the product of more than a decade of intense diplomacy and economic pressure marks a staggeringly counterproductive step. That it was undertaken over the vocal objections of Washington’s closest allies and without a clear strategy of mitigating the newly heightened risks of Iranian proliferation and conventional retaliation represents an abdication of American leadership on the international stage that is unparalleled in recent history.

[Trump’s move] represents an abdication of American leadership on the international stage that is unparalleled in recent history.

Notably, it was precipitated by a president who could not even respond to a single, simple question, shouted by a reporter as Trump signed the order to re-impose sanctions with a flourish of his pen, about how his decision might make the country safer. That is the only question that matters: How is America safer now that the United States is unravelling its end of a bargain that curbed Iran’s nuclear activities?

A deal dismembered

Trump’s silence on this point illustrates more than simply his own limited familiarity with the complex issues at stake in the deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA, which he disparaged as “defective at its core.” It highlights the absurd logic that his administration has deployed in grappling with the challenges posed by Tehran. If the president truly believes that the JCPOA’s far-reaching inspections regime and its restrictions of 10, 15, and 25 years on various aspects of Iran’s nuclear activities are somehow insufficient to guard against Iran’s unshakeable yearning for a nuclear weapon, what risks then are posed by the evisceration of all constraints?

The inevitable consequence of American abrogation of the deal is the attrition of its constraints. American investment in negotiating a resolution to Iran’s nuclear ambitions—undertaken first by the George W. Bush administration and culminated by Barack Obama—furnished the requisite quid pro quo that persuaded Tehran to make historic concessions. Absent America, Tehran has ceded those ambitions for little more than European goodwill; trading diamonds for chocolates, as an influential Iranian politician once ridiculed a prior nuclear accord. Tehran walked away from that agreement, and over time it is sure to abandon the wreckage that remains of the JCPOA.

For Trump, the decision is all ego; dismembering the Iran deal satisfies a multiplicity of petty personal interests—in undoing his predecessor’s legacy, making good on his own campaign promises, and stroking his inflated sense of his own negotiating prowess as manifestly superior to Obama, who he charged with conceding “maximum leverage” in exchange for a “giant fiction.”

By contrast, for Trump’s advisors—most notably National Security Advisor John Bolton—and many others in Washington especially within the Republican policy establishment, the madness is the method. Guided by their mantra that Tehran only responds to force, Trump administration hawks have embraced the theory that the United States needs to be prepared to disrupt the status quo across the region, precisely because Iran has found it a conducive context for enhancing its own influence. They have no ready explanation for precisely how disruption will rebalance the regional power equation in America’s favor, and the only prior application of this strategic vision—the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq—is hardly a reassuring precedent.

The view from Tehran

For better or, as is likely, for worse, this “chaos theory” dovetails neatly with the array of possibilities available to Tehran in responding to the demise of the nuclear deal. Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, moved quickly to forestall any sense of a regime in crisis by taking to state television immediately after Trump concluded his own remarks. His reassurance was primarily aimed at his own jittery population, whose trepidations about mounting pressure had helped collapse the value of the domestic currency in recent months.

Iran can muddle through a considerable amount of economic pressure and turmoil, thanks to a diversified economy as well as long experience and well-honed tactics for mitigating and evading sanctions. But the reality is that despite profound international resentment over Trump’s tactics, the re-imposition of U.S. sanctions will present much of the world with only one viable choice, to abstain or wind down trade and investment with Tehran rather than risk U.S. penalties. European assurances to Tehran can do little to change the calculations of the private sector, especially when the upside rewards of opportunities in Iran remain modest in comparison to the potential liabilities.

And as the benefits of the deal wane, Tehran will contend with its own saber rattlers, whose worldview was shaped by the isolation and existential conflict of the revolution’s early years. They will seek to match American pressure with Iranian pushback and demonstrate the country’s capability to outmaneuver American forces on the range of battlefields across the region where they are in close proximity with Iran’s Revolutionary Guard and its proxy militias.

Trump has repeatedly insisted that he will steer clear of embroiling America in yet another long, messy, costly conflict in the Middle East, but his decision to target the nuclear deal elevates the odds of Iranian escalation and, with it, even greater threats to U.S. interests and allies. The irony is acute; Trump derided the JCPOA because “it didn’t bring calm, it didn’t bring peace,” but undoing the deal will only inflame a region already riven by extremism and sectarian rivalries, making it harder for the United States to extricate itself as the president himself has promised. Until and unless the administration resolves the contradictions between the president’s maximalist objectives, his disinclination to take on the Iranians on the ground, and Washington’s divergence from its core allies on this question, Trump cannot hope to make progress on any element of the Iranian challenge.

Undoing the deal will only inflame a region already riven by extremism and sectarian rivalries.

Trump peppered his speech with incongruous notes of triumphalism about his as-yet inconclusive diplomatic gambit toward North Korea as well as the expectation that Iran’s leaders “are going to want to make a new and lasting deal, one that benefits all of Iran and the Iranian people. When they do, I am ready, willing, and able. Great things can happen for Iran.” Although it might prove a clever gambit for managing the fallout, neither Rouhani nor his harder-line rivals in the security establishment are likely to take Trump up on his offer to “make Iran great again” by returning to the negotiating table. Given the widespread public support for the deal among Iranians, Trump’s announcement dealt a visceral blow to the national dignity well beyond the regime itself; no serious politician would survive an effort to engage with Washington any time soon.

Great expectations, dashed

From the start, the inflated expectations underpinning the deal on both sides threatened its viability. Iran’s leadership promoted the nuclear deal as a total victory that meant the wholesale removal of economic restrictions and an expressway to diplomatic and economic revival. In reality, Iran faced a continuing web of U.S. sanctions, international trepidation, and a dysfunctional economy that resisted an easy jumpstart.

President Obama was far more circumspect in his rhetoric, taking care to describe the deal as resolving only one element of the threat posed by Iran. But his officials routinely posited that the deal could generate other avenues of cooperation with Iran, and the logic beneath the agreement’s time-limited restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program presupposed Iran’s evolution into a responsible and respected member of the international community. The reality turned out very differently there too, as Tehran maintained and in some cases intensified its efforts to extend its influence across the region through any means necessary.

The disconnect between the text of the deal and the aspirations attached to it set the stage for rising frustration and bitterness on both sides, paving the way for Trump’s demand to “fix” the agreement by fundamentally revising the trade-offs at its core. The increasingly frantic European efforts to provide the president with the appearance of a victory while leaving the essence of the agreement untouched proved in the end to be a wild goose chase. Fine-tuning the JCPOA cannot alter the fact that it represented a transaction, not a transformation, as I noted the day after the deal was concluded in July 2015:

Only the most credulous optimist can assert that a nuclear deal will somehow produce an Iranian epiphany about the horrific and destabilizing consequences of its assistance to Bashar Al Assad. Tehran’s approach to extending its regional influence, via the funding and direction of violent proxies across the region, will continue to exacerbate instability in Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon, and beyond, while fueling the geostrategic rivalry with Saudi Arabia and the related sectarian tensions. This week’s resumption of a trial of a Washington Post reporter underscores that Iran’s unjust detention of American citizens for months or even years will likely continue as well. The same streets where Iranians celebrated a deal yesterday were the scenes of anti-American and anti-Israeli protests, where both flags were burnt in effigy, only a few days ago.

With his announcement on Tuesday, Trump has jettisoned that transaction for the far more ambitious goal of Iran’s transformation. That will require far more than the stroke of a pen: For this gambit to succeed, the White House now has to devise a strategy that can compel or persuade Tehran to make unprecedented concessions on an array of vital security policies. When the nuclear agreement was first concluded, Rouhani described it as an “end and a beginning” for Iran. With Trump’s termination of the nuclear deal, the formidable challenge of trying to get more with less is just beginning.